Sunday, June 14, 2015

Weighing in on #distractinglysexy

This past week showed me just how well female scientists can defend themselves against the sexism that still exists in the noble profession of academia. It also pointed out to me yet again the power of social media, for better or for worse, in dealing with political incorrectness. For those of you who don’t know what transpired, here’s the story. The 2001 Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt from Britain, 72 years old, opened a conference in South Korea with what he deemed to be a joke about women in science. He said essentially that girls (he did not use the word women, mind you) fall in love with you and you with them, that they distract you (men) from doing science, that they cry when criticized, and that he was in favor of single-sex labs *. Social media exploded predictably with appropriate and inappropriate responses. Hunt later apologized for his foolish remarks but not for his beliefs. Because he does believe that what he said about women is the truth. Nowadays you have to be very careful about what you say if you are in the public eye, because social media will try you and fry you for your transgressions, superficial opinions and comments. I’m not going to enter a debate about the pros and cons of social media; I leave that to others. I will say that I found the responses of a majority of female scientists to be quite amusing. Rather than going on a strident attack, they responded to the situation in a humorous fashion. I don’t know who started the hashtag #distractinglysexy, but if you go onto Twitter and search for it, you will be rewarded with a number of tweets that will leave you laughing—photos and accompanying comments of women dressed in lab coats, protective gear, goggles, hats, etc., all of whom comment on how ‘distractingly sexy’ they look while carrying out their laboratory work. They took the piss out of Hunt’s comments by doing so. That is the intelligent and cunning response.  

I have worked in laboratories all my working life. Being a scientist has been my career. I’ve done alright through the years, and as many of my readers know from other posts, I’ve had the support of male mentors who have done their level best to ensure that I succeeded, or had the same opportunities as the men around me to succeed. But there were a few men who behaved questionably toward me up through the years. I learned to deflect their sexist comments that came my way—about sitting on their laps, about the view of my rear end when I bent over, about my being ‘unbalanced’ when I shed a few tears in anger and frustration about not getting a raise I more than deserved, and about whether I planned on becoming pregnant. I am well aware that I am no exception to these kinds of comments; I grew up in an era when women were making inroads into the workforce and certain types of men found that threatening, irritating, or pointless. They needed to make women feel inferior; I remember thinking ‘their poor wives, having to put up with them’. Certain types of men still react that way. Unfortunately, I learned along the way that certain types of women also react that way. Not all women help other women in the lab. Again, we can argue for and against this fact. Should women support women unequivocally? I try to provide moral support for the younger women I work with, simply because I know how hard it is to climb the academic ladder. But I do the same with the younger men as well. Because their lot is not easy these days either; there is less money and fewer positions. It’s a dog-eat-dog world in academia, even more so than before.

This episode points out that the world NEEDS to be reminded every now and then of all of the women in science who have done terrific science, who have worked tirelessly to promote good science, who have won Nobel Prizes, some of whom have done so while raising a family. Kudos to them—to Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, Gertrude Elion, Rosalind Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Rachel Carson, Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Lise Meitner, Elizabeth Blackburn, and Dorothy Hodgkin, to name a few. I could also list the many female scientists I know internationally who plod along, doing their daily work, writing papers, publishing, and mentoring students. All of them are equal-opportunity employers and mentors; I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of them express a preference for female students or employees at the expense of men. They are not sexist. Perhaps the male twits in the scientific community could learn from and be inspired by them, and then maybe we would not have to listen to their twaddle any longer.

Apropos, I was going to call this post 'A Twit, His Twaddle, and Twitter', but opted for the current title. But I like the other one too (I'm happy with the alliteration).

*This is what Tim Hunt was reported to have said:
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls........Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” After offering an apparent apology, he dug the hole he was in even deeper when he said “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It's terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth.”

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